Is Discover the best credit card for China?

Discover and China’s UnionPay have reciprocal deals to allow their cardholders access to the other’s payment network. I had forgotten about this until reminded by a Businessweek article on state-bank backed UnionPay, with its strangle-hold on China, has the #2 place in global credit- and debit-card transaction volume at 23.8%, trailing only Visa. In China, UnionPay gets a cut even of American Express, MasterCard and Visa transactions. The article did not provide UnionPay’s global ex-China position.

‘Foreign’ (non-China issued) card acceptance in China is still quite low. A merchant may have Visa and MasterCard logos on display, but that may only apply to China-issued cards. Some merchants may in theory accept foreign cards yet claim their machine just happens to be broken, or try to add a surcharge. Generally the answer is just a ‘no.’ Foreign cards are only reliably accepted at high-end international brand hotels, fairly common at high-end restaurants in major cities, and some retail, like Carrefour and Walmart. Some of the online travel websites now accept foreign credit cards with less hassle than a few years ago when fax authorizations and such were required.

Discover’s partnership with UnionPay promises to solve this, their cards accepted by any UnionPay card reader, and Discover does not charge foreign transaction fees. I specifically say card reader, and not merchant, because virtually no one in China knows the Discover brand and Discover cards do not display the UnionPay logo familiar to Chinese. Reader Andrew R commented of his difficulty convincing Chinese merchants to accept his Discover card. I was in Shanghai two weeks ago but did not have a Discover to test.

I searched UnionPay’s website for information on Discover and found little of use to print out and show to Chinese merchants. Discover, though, clearly has dealt with this difficulty and has a handy Chinese-English print-out card. I strongly recommend you show this card anytime you try to use Discover in China.

Discover has a Country Acceptance Map, and an Asia FAQ. In addition to China with UnionPay, Discover is accepted in Japan at JCB locations, and Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand at Diners Club International locations.

I have not extensively traveled Japan in some years so not sure if foreign card acceptance is much of an issue. The other countries I have traveled more recently and my experience is that if a merchant accepts Diners Club International then they also will accept Visa and MasterCard. American Express coverage is always spotty.

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  1. I used Visa throughout my trip to China mostly without incident. The incident was dynamic currency exchange. There are online pdf’s available to take with you.. which I would.

  2. Foreign acceptance of AMEX suffers from the same issues as domestic acceptance: AMEX charges their affiliated merchants roughly twice the processing fees charged by the most of the other brands. While *most* AMEX card programs have far better perks for the cardholder, someone still has to pay for them so an increasing number of merchants just say NO. Obvious exceptions are virtually all airlines and hotels operating under names that are universally known; those folks have no choice. I carry an AMEX, but the opportunities to use it are becoming fewer by the year. Again, someone still has to pay for the bonuses, rebates and other benefits associated with AMEX use and all too often the merchants a saying “Not me.”

  3. Thanks for the full summary. I’ve never used the Discover/Union Pay print out card but maybe should….I speak enough Mandarin to convince clerks to give it a shot, but it can be somewhat of a hassle. That said, it’s been convenient to pay with card everywhere from a coffeeshop in Shigatse Tibet to smaller hotels/hostels in Dongbei that certainly wouldn’t take the big cards. Discover isn’t that useful if you are going to stay within the more tourist/international centric areas, but great outside it. And I’ve found the FX rate to be quite good with Discoer/UnionPay – for whatever reason, a tick or two (literally 1/6 to 1/3 of a percent) better that what I’ll get from Visa on the same day.

  4. Andrew,

    I currently live in Nanjing and used to live up north in Changchun. One negative of how I spend cash here is that it gives me no chance to build up credit or frequent flyer miles, which is what I do with my cards when I’m in the U.S. For someone spending most of the year in China, would you recommend adding a Discover card? It sounds like you’ve had a positive experience. I also feel like it good be great when eating out with friends – I could pay with a card, and they could give me cash. Much easier than splitting the bill.

  5. @Byron Meinerth – I lived in China for 8 years and had no idea what I was missing with all this. It sounds like you already have some cards to build your history, just not many chances to use them in China so not much activity or earning. If some of your existing cards have no foreign transaction fee you can at least use those a bit for the occasional plane ticket, hotel or restaurant that accepts them. Then I do think adding a Discover card is a good way to earn something for everyday spend. The new Discover lineup is herem so for personal cards your only choice is the cash back Discover It card, however they still have a business miles card that earns miles similar to Capital One rewards for cash redemptions but not for transfers to frequent flyer programs, either one might be a help and is what I would do along with my trusty Charles Schwab checking and debit card.

  6. I got a Discover card because I live in China and would love to earn some miles on all these day to day purchases. So the card came and I was all excited to use it at Metro (kind of like Sam’s Club). They accept UnionPay, so I got my stuff but when I checked out they wouldn’t take it, I showed them the wallet card that Discover posts online to explain to clerks how to swipe the card. The manager refused to swipe it. I called UnionPay and they said it is fine and told the store manager to swipe it, but she still refused.
    A week later UnionPay called me back to tell me that that store (Metro) and their bank (ICBC) haven’t done the paperwork to accept foreign cards. Apparently any store or bank can refuse the Discover card (rendering their UnionPay agreement useless) and there’s no way to know without asking ahead of time.

    So, despite Discover’s assurances that this card will be accepted anywhere UnionPay is, it just isn’t true. DunkinDonuts took the card, but then again they take Visa and MasterCard, too. I was hoping to be able to use this card in all those other stores that don’t take Visa & MC. Most checkout clerks have not seen the card and won’t swipe it without a big argument, so think twice about applying for the card for use in China until Discover and UnionPay get this straightened out.

    Discover, if you’re reading this, please get the UnionPay logo on the card- it will save your customers lots of trouble.

  7. You’re not wrong in anything you wrote here. Above all, your final comment about Discover getting its UnionPay logo on the card is extremely important for customers who can’t or don’t want to put up with explaining.

    I had the same experience at Metro, which was extremely frustrating. I also had a woman at an Italian restaurant who refused to listen to my instructions about processing my card as a UnionPay card. She kept using the international card function, because she assumed I didn’t know what I was talking about. Mind you, these interactions were in Mandarin, and I’ve already memorized the directions that Discover provided on the supplementary wallet card.

    Still, anyone who carries the card or knows an inkling of Mandarin should be able to use the card wherever UnionPay is accepted.

  8. @JS, @Bryon – I am back in Shanghai and wish I had a Discover card to test, I figured it would be quite the challenge, just like the places where the fapiao machines just happen to be broken that day (and every day), but if you come back tomorrow… 🙂

  9. I’ve been trying the card everywhere I go and am having a lot more success. Wal*Mart, a Shell gas station, a local car repair place, Watson’s. All of them took the card and I know they don’t take Visa or Mastercard because I’ve tried before.
    UnionPay called me back yesterday after that whole ordeal a couple weeks ago; they said that Metro has received the training and information they need and that I can use the card now. I haven’t been able to try it out yet, but I do want to keep pushing it through as it saves me a lot of hassle exchanging money and carrying lots of Chinese cash.

    A couple things to note:
    1) Of course, call Discover and let them know you’re in China. Mine didn’t work until I called Discover to tell them I’m overseas.
    2) Don’t bother explaining to the cashier. Just give them the card, if they protest, then give them the wallet card. Some cashiers run in without a second thought. I’ve found it more effective to tell them that this is, effectively, a UnionPay card rather than trying to explain that Discover and UnionPay have some kind of agreement.
    3) Some machines run it without a password (just push the green 确定 button). Others require six zeros as a PIN.

  10. By the way, one reason I bookmark this blog is that you occasionally cover traveling in China. I’d love to hear more about traveling within Asia for expats. There are some great deals for those of us living over here. (like 12k mile roundtrip economy tickets within China using Delta Miles, up to a 800km each way or 25k roundtrip from China to Eastern Russia, Guam, Saipan, etc.) So keep the China travel news coming!

  11. @JS – thanks for the detailed updates, those are very useful, particularly the don’t attempt to explain, while the 000000 for PIN is new to me.

    I am heading back to Shanghai today for a week. I had lived in China for 8 years, then when I got the blog going I was already back in the US and had a gap of two years without a trip to China. You remind me that I have intended to cover Asia and particularly China a lot more, and have not been good at carving out the time. I have traveled to every province of China and been meaning to do a China month series.

  12. Can’t wait for the China series if you decide to do it. I’ve found lots of small, expensive airports at tourist sights (Jiuzhaigou, Zhangjiajie, Datong, etc.) are very accessible for 12k Delta Miles roundtrip. I live in Xi’an (China Eastern hub), so lots of flights are under that 800km limit.

  13. US Air has a 25k RT awards to Central Asia; have you ever tried routing through Europe to get there from China? I know Asiana flies to some of those countries, but some of those countries seem to only be serviced through European Star Alliance carriers, yet they’re categorized with northern Asia on the award chart.

  14. Wow thanks guys. i tried 3 different merchants and they keep trying and it failed. then called discover and rep didn’t know S##@ about anything international ended up with supervisor and s/he didn’t know much either. found this and six zero would do the trick. it looks like most of the chip readers can’t read discover card but the side reader (normal creditcard reader) works fine and then prompts for pin

  15. One of my good friends lives in China and had trouble getting merchants to accept his discover card. His solution was to print out a tiny unionpay logo and tape it onto the front of his card– since then, he’s had no trouble getting anyone to run it!

  16. @Christina – I had thought about trying that myself, Discover should provide a kit. Do you know if he has the new chip version? In October may wife and others had tremendous trouble with that until she went back to the old non-chip card.

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